Cognitive Strategies

This week, I'd like to expand upon several of the cognitive learning tools mentioned in Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works (Pitler, Hubbell, & Kuhn, 2012).  In the following paragraphs, I will discuss several technological tools and their relationship to cognitive processing.  Included are methods of incorporating cues, questions and/or advance organizers, as well as summarizing and note-taking in class.

Word Processing Applications

Tools such as Notepad, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Works and Google Docs can be useful when creating any type of advance organizers (expository, narrative, or graphic) (Pitler, et al., 2012).  In my German classes, students may, for example, use these tools to create tourist brochures for the Alps, an editorial about immigration in Germany, a daily diary with reflective notes and self-analysis, a list of unfamiliar vocabulary and their meanings, etc.  Google Docs and Presentations would also allow for easy sharing and peer feedback in a centralized location, allowing students to access them anywhere at any time.

Because images and video clips can now be easily embedded into most modern word processing tools, students may also experience the effects of Paivio's dual processing hypothesis, which assumes that pupils will create more meaningful, lasting connections when more than one sense is activated while learning new content (Laureate, Inc., 2010).  Word processing products of any kind--whether expository, narrative or graphic--can also help students to organize their thoughts and ideas in a way that is conducive to creating the kinds of connections that will result in long-term memories (Laureate Education, Inc., 2010).

Word processing applications can also be very useful in terms of summarizing and note-taking, a skill that many students need in the classroom but often lack.  Effective summarizing and note-taking can enhance a student's ability to focus on main ideas and keep supporting details in mind, as well as recognize meaningful connections between old and new information (Pitler, et al., 2012).

Google Docs is a great tool for note-taking, as the notes can then be shared, edited or modified as needed from anywhere in the world.  Evernote is also a syncable software program that allows for a high level of customization and neatly organized tabs and notes.  Even Notepad can be helpful as a super-simple technological product in the sense that it can help students who are too easily distracted by having too many options and/or online access.  I actually personally prefer Notepad because it allows me to focus on just the most important points without worrying about font, colors, sizing, etc.

Data Collection and Analysis Tools

As a Google Apps school, we use Google Forms and Spreadsheets quite a bit.  Currently, I require each student to keep a Google Sheet that tracks his or her learning and progress in my class.  The technology allows the student to fill in the name of the assessments he or she completes and then choose from dropdown menus to determine whether or not it is formative or summative, and to choose which of the skills (reading, writing, listening or speaking) he or she demonstrated.  The students can then sort that sheet in any way that is useful, for example by setting the sheet to display only speaking assessments.  The sheet will also allow students to determine how well they have to do on upcoming assessments to meet proficiency in a particular skill.  Additionally, they may choose to see that information in the form of a pie chart or bar graph, which helps them to immediately interpret and process an otherwise large chunk of information (Laureate Education, Inc., 2010).

This kind of data collection and analysis meets Novak's and Cañas' (2008) requirements for meaningful learning because the concept is very clear (self-review of assessments and progress), the learner has prior knowledge of his/her own skills and proficiencies in class (and is keeping track of them for reference), and the learner can meaningfully engage on a personal level in an effort to show improvement.  Thus, a digital record of a student's progress on Google Sheets can be a successful cognitive strategy in the classroom.

Instructional Media

Online discussion forums, blogs, digital documentaries, authentic videos, songs, radio broadcasts and films and even social media are becoming more and more commonplace in the classroom today.  One example that I use is a site called Yabla.  Yabla offers hundreds of authentic, German-language videos of all kinds for educational use.  The videos are organized by categories and are also searchable.  I can therefore either pre-select a video to use in class or assign my students to use key words to find one on their own for interpretive listening and/or interpersonal speaking practice.

Instructional media often incorporates the use of cues, which serve as "hints" for the students about the new content and questions, which are a way for students to access previously learned information (Pitler, et al., 2012).  Yabla, for example, would provide students with visual (images and body language), aural (voice tone, sound effects) and contextual cues, as well as provoke a multitude of questions about the content and interactions between characters, thus integrating Paivio's dual coding hypothesis on a number of levels.  This would allow students to create very meaningful connections, and solid long-term episodic memories about the plots and interactions seen in the short films (Laureate Education, Inc., 2010).  I think multimedia and especially video and audio clips are a great cognitive learning tool for those reasons--and that they can be paired up with advance organizers and other technological tools for even further creative thought and processing.

Organizing and Brainstorming Software

With regard to summarizing and note-taking, there are also many brainstorming and organizing software tools available.  I personally enjoy using Google Drawing for brainstorming and mindmapping activities.  I provide students with a template that has pre-made boxes into which they can enter concept labels.  They can easily copy and paste more boxes if needed.  They can then connect boxes together with all kinds of lines, color-code the boxes if they want to, and/or add propositions, semantic units or other elements.  The product is always able to be edited and rearranged, allowing for students to demonstrate hierarchical thinking as they place more general ideas at the top of the board and more specific details towards the bottom.  They can also go back and add more cross-links as they discover more connections between ideas.  In this sense, my students are effectively using Google Drawing as a concept mapping tool (Novak & Cañas, 2008).

Concept mapping is a way of summarizing and note-taking that helps students to focus on main ideas and supporting details.  It encourages them to find and make connections between previously learned and new material.  It also clarifies concepts and allows students to make meaningful choices about their learning.  All of this makes the idea of concept mapping through Google Drawing a great cognitive tool that assists students with organizing their thoughts and thinking creatively (Novak & Cañas, 2008).

I never realized how many cognitive tools I used in the classroom, but found it very interesting to note that Novak and Cañas (2008) explicitly state that the learner must purposefully opt to meaningfully integrate new knowledge into his or her life in order for the memories to stick and for progress to be made.  That certainly contradicts Behaviorism, which typically states that the learner is passive and reactive only to external stimuli and positive or negative feedback (Orey, 2001).  I definitely enjoy and prefer cognitive learning skills to behaviorist methods.


Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (2010). Cognitive learning theories [Video webcast]. Retrieved from

Novak, J. D., & Cañas, A. J. (2008). The theory underlying concept maps and how to construct and use them, Technical Report IHMC CmapTools 2006-01 Rev 01-2008. Retrieved from the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition Web site:

Orey, M. (Ed.). (2001). Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved from

Pitler, H., Hubbell, E. R., & Kuhn, M. (2012). Using technology with classroom instruction that works (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.


  1. Dana,
    Do you find that using these tools has made a significant difference in how your students learn and retain information? You have been teaching a while, and I assume have not always been using so much technology. Have you seen a remarkable difference in the progress classes make since you've incorporated so many technology based cognitive tools? Or have you been using these tools for a long time, and they were just not technology based?

  2. Hi Mary,

    You know, this is the first time someone has ever asked me that!

    Honestly, I am not sure. I do think that using technology (instead of fighting them to "close their window to the world") is definitely helpful in terms of keeping them engaged.

    I am not, however, sure that I am seeing a lot of progress and/or a remarkable difference in the way my kids learn due to the technological tools I have been incorporating into my lessons.

    Here are my observations (which are in line with my colleagues at HCRHS): the kids seem to be able to easily absorb information and facts as though they are empty vessels that can be filled up... and they are good at rote rehearsal and memorization. However, they absolutely cannot synthesize information and actually freak out, shut down and/or generally panic whenever you ask them to make connections between concepts.

    I have, for example, maybe two students who truly understand the mindmapping/concept mapping thing. They totally get it, they are excited by it, they love doing it. Everyone else just stares at the screen asking me what I "want" them to write. They seem totally incapable of anything requiring imagination, creativity and/or original thought--even outright scared to engage in those things.

    I was talking to a colleague about this the other day because we are all really, really frustrated about it and it is epidemic at our school, it seems. He called it "rich white district syndrome" and said that he hadn't experienced the same kind of lack of creativity in other more diverse and less economically advantaged districts (I don't know what to think of that myself). And then I said I wasn't sure exactly how much progress to expect from teenagers anymore, and that I don't know where my actual job stops (teaching them these exact skills) and where their responsibility as learners begins (not having to be directly instructed on what to do for every little task).

    I would love to hear your (or anyone else's) thoughts on this if you have a reaction/feedback, etc.!

  3. I think because of the way we measure success in school right now, there is not a place for creativity or lateral thinking. On standardized tests we ask student to perform specific tasks and use specific skills. Generally those have not required creative thinking. Students know what they have to give back to get a good score/grade and they are incredibly uncomfortable when they don't have what they consider clear guidelines.

    I remember taking a college class where the majority of the grade was based on a task (I really don't remember what it was exactly now. In my mind the teacher obviously had expectations, but would not share them. That felt to me like a set-up for failure. Perhaps your students are feeling the same. That you have an exact idea about what you want, but are refusing to tell them.

    Do you know if the elementary and middle schools in your district are using tools like concept mapping? I have to admit that it was difficult for me to grasp the idea as it was set out in the Novak article. I've done some webbing (it's not my preferred way to brainstorm) but I had never used the relationship words, nor seen that. I tried to wrap my head around that and I think I finally did (sort of). Are you asking students to just web, or are you asking them to find relationships between the nodes as well? I find that a very high level skill and if they don't have the basic idea of webbing to begin with, it may be quite a leap to ask them to find relationships between the nodes as well. Here is an interesting blog post about declining creativity in kids. They blame is laid on technology (television, video games, internet) and education. With NCLB, standardized testing, and "accountability" have squeezed creativity right out of teachers lives, classrooms and students as well. I know I feel that. There is so much emphasis put on growth that is measured in a specific way, at least in our school, that kindergartners don't get to play store anymore, and elementary students barely have time for recess.

    So I think part of the problem is that schools have become so "accountable" that there isn't time for play, and that is the wellspring of creativity.

  4. I like how you stated that cognitive learning theory is the opposite to Behaviorism. I also agree with you that we as educators us so many cognitive learning theories everyday.